Hands On With Dell’s Mini10 Netbook — Should You Buy It?

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Intel outed the Atom N450 platform for netbooks near the end of December last year. Athough you can still find plenty of netbooks with the older N270 and N280 CPUs, the new N450 — and now N470 — offer slightly better performance while reducing power consumption. The energy savings comes from Intel’s Atom moving from three chips to two and this Pine Trail platform is fast becoming the standard for netbooks. The Intel GMA 3150 graphics solution is integrated into the chipset. Like many, Dell has already added the N450 to its netbook lineup and they sent me a review unit to check out the new Intel platform inside the Dell Mini10. This is my first look at both products.

Overview and specifications

The Mini10 is named for its display size, which is a fairly standard LED backlit, glossy 10.1″ display and 1024 x 600 resolution. The Intel Atom N450 powers Microsoft Windows 7 Starter Edition, which does have some limitations, but meets the needs of basic computing tasks. 1 GB of DDR2 RAM is included, as is a 250 GB hard drive spinning at 5400 RPM in my evaluation unit. The usual port suspects are also present: three USB, one wired Ethernet, microphone, headset, VGA and memory card slot. Two stereo speakers under the device near the front, 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR are also equipped in this model, as is 1.3 megpaixl integrated webcam above the display. This configuration comes with a 56 WHr 6-cell battery. The display hinges aren’t flush with the back edge of the device, which gives you a “lip” to carry the Mini10. And unlike many other netbook designs, the 6-cell battery doesn’t bump out from the device.

Keyboard and Trackpad

I like the edge-to-edge keyboard that Dell offers on the Mini10. A full six rows are available and all of the keys are sized and spaced normally. The keys are generally square, but have rounded edges making it feel like there’s more room between the keys than there actually is. I wish there was room for dedicated Page Up and Page Down buttons, but you’ll have to use the Fn key plus the up or down arrows. And there’s a quirk to the Function keys in the top row. By default, they control the hardware specific functions of the Mini10 — turn wireless on or off, change the screen brightness, adjust the sound, etc… In most cases, these are secondary functions and require the use of the Fn key. Not so with the Mini10. And the more I used them, the more I like the idea. I rarely use the Function keys for F1, F2, F3, etc… I typically need them to control hardware features.

The trackpad is a different story for me and I’ll admit there’s some personal preferences getting in the way here — clearly I’m spoiled by the ginormous offering on my Toshiba NB205. The Mini10 trackpad doesn’t have separate mouse buttons — they’re integrated in, almost like the buttonless mousepad on Apple notebooks. But the Dell approach falls a little short for me. The buttons are only clickable in a small corner of the trackpad and I found myself clicking around until I found just the right spot. The small nature of a netbook trackpad likely has impact here, but in the end, it doesn’t matter to a consumer if it’s not working well. Of course, you can simply tap the trackpad for a left-click, just like you can on most other Windows computers. You can’t do that for a right click, however. On the plus side, the trackpad is wide and allows for easy cross-screen mouse tracking on the default setting.

Performance

I’ll talk about the overall performance “feel” of the Mini10 in minute, but let’s get the standard benchmarks out of the way. There are number of tools and suites to test performance, but since I have a history of device results with CrystalMark, I ran it on the Mini10. The full set of numbers is available here, and overall, the device earned 26,396 marks. Compared to the Toshiba NB205 which uses the older N280 Atom at the same 1.66 GHz, the Mini10 actually scored worse than the 29,309 of the NB205. I wouldn’t read too much into the numbers though — the Intel Atom N450 isn’t intended to add a significant performance boost. Instead it’s designed to offer a similar experience while adding a longer run time on a single battery charge. One other point worth mentioning — I tested the Mini10 with Windows 7 while the Toshiba device was running Windows XP SP3. All in all, I’d call the benchmarking a relative draw for these reasons. So why did I do the testing? If I hadn’t, someone would have asked me to. ;)

So what about typical daily use — how does the Mini10 perform with the N450? It works just like you’d expect for a netbook although I found the 78 second boot time a bit slow for my tastes. However, I can run a browser with multiple tabs, play music and run another application or two without a problem. Sleep and resume only takes a few seconds. But like all netbooks, you start pushing the limits if you run half a dozen software titles and expect no lagginess. 480p Flash video with Hulu starts to cause frame drops and stutters. Full-screen mode is watchable, but not enjoyable — typical for most netbooks that don’t have a third-party graphics solution. Watching a 720p Windows Media Video file on the Mini10 offered a far better experience, so varied file types and codecs definitely impact performance.

I now have Windows 7 on the Toshiba NB205 and overall, I can’t tell much performance difference between the new Atom N450 and the old N280. I’m sure there are subtle variances, but by and large if you asked me to pick which netbook had which processor platform, I couldn’t really tell based on the perceived performance. About the only way I could tell is by using both machines all day to see which one lasts longer a charge. This is where Intel is offering the biggest benefit in the N450 — the Mini10 is definitely an all-day machine with nearly 10 hours of runtime for the way I configure and use a netbook. (Note: I set my brightness to the lowest usable levels and use the most aggressive power management scheme.) That’s at least 2 hours more than what I see in the Toshiba NB205 with Intel Atom N280 — and Toshiba supplies it with a 63 WHr power pack.

Dell specifics

Part of the slow boot time could be due to some of the extras that Dell includes. McAfee Security Center is a startup process as is a custom Dell dock that resides on the top of the display. Granted, you should have some anti-virus protection running, so any third-party app in this genre can slow things down a little. And while the dock is nice — you can customize it with your own shortcuts, move the placement, etc… — I’m not sold on the value it adds on a small screen when the improved taskbar in Windows 7 is very capable. Still, it’s a nice touch with a “Mac-like” look and feel. Dell wisely hasn’t filled the Mini10 with “crapware” — booting brings a clean desktop aside from the Dell Dock and a shortcut for a 60-day Microsoft Office trial.

Dell also uses a “brickless” power adapter. Usually a notebook or netbook adapter has a rectangular “brick” between the two cord ends. Not so with the Mini10. The “brick” is built in to the plug itself and there’s an LED indicator at the netbook end of the cord so you instantly know if the cord is plugged in.

Conclusion

Aside from the trackpad quirk, Dell offers a solid netbook in the newest Mini10. The Intel Atom N450 might not offer a performance gain over older netbooks, but it does provide a longer run-time — important for a mobile device. Folks that don’t currently own a netbook or want to add a new one to their stable should consider the Mini10. If you recently bought an N280-powered device and you’re happy with it, however, I don’t see a compelling reason to upgrade.

 

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